On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Carpocrates of Alexandria was the founder of an early Gnostic sect from the first half of the second century who used only the Gospel according to the Hebrews. As with many Gnostic sects, we know of the Carpocratians only through the writings of the Church Fathers, principally Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. As the former strongly opposed Gnostic doctrine, there is a question of negative bias when using this source. While the various references to the Carpocratians differ in some details, they agree as to the libertinism of the sect.



The earliest and most vivid account of Carpocrates and his followers comes from Irenaeus (died 202) in his Against Heresies including an account of the theology and practice of the sect.

They believe, he writes, that Jesus was not divine; but because his soul was "steadfast and pure", he "remembered those things which he had witnessed within the sphere of the unbegotten God" (similar to Plato's concept of Anamnesis). Because of this, Jesus was able to free himself from the material powers (what other Gnostics call Archons, the Demiurge, etc.). Carpocratians believed they themselves could transcend the material realm, and therefore were no longer bound by Mosaic law, which was based on the material powers, or by any other morality, which, they held, was mere human opinion.

Irenaeus then goes on to provide his further, slightly different, explanation. The followers of Carpocrates, he says, believed that in order to leave this world, one's imprisoned eternal soul must pass through every possible condition of earthly life. Moreover, it is possible to do this within one lifetime. As a result, the Carpocratians did "all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of" so that when they died, they would not be compelled to incarnate again but would return to God. Borges depicts a fictional sect with the exact belief in his short story The Theologians.

Irenaeus says that they practised various magical arts as well as leading a licentious life. He also says that they possessed a portrait of Christ, a painting they claimed had been made by Pilate during his lifetime, which they honoured along with images of Plato, Pythagoras and Aristotle "in the manner of the Gentiles".


Carpocrates is also mentioned by Clement of Alexandria in his Stromateis. Clement quotes extensively from On Righteousness which he says was written by Epiphanes, Carpocrates' son. No copy outside of Clement's citation exists, but the writing is of a strongly antinomian bent. It claims that differences in class and the ownership of property are unnatural, and argues for property and women to be held in common. Clement confirms claiming that at their Agape meaning an early Christian gathering.

According to Clement, Carpocrates was from Alexandria although his sect was primarily located in Cephallenia.

Secret Gospel of Mark

Carpocrates is again mentioned in the controversial Mar Saba letter, purportedly also by Clement of Alexandria, discovered in 1958 by Morton Smith. The letter mentions and quotes from a previously unsuspected Secret Gospel of Mark, which Carpocrates had wheedled an opportunity to copy at Alexandria. A corrupted copy was circulating among Carpocrates' followers.

Miscelleous references

Other references to Carpocrates exist but are likely to be based on the two already cited.

Epiphanius of Salamis writes that


Carpocrates is also mentioned by Tertullian and Hippolytus, both of whom seem to rely on Irenaeus; and also perhaps by Origen and Hegesippus.



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